Exploding Raymond Carver’s spare stories and minimally drawn characters onto the screen with startling imagination, Robert Altman has made his most complex and full-bodied human comedy since “Nashville” in “Short Cuts.” Top reviews and terrific cast will get this Fine Line release off to a strong start in specialized situations, sparked by its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and U.S. bow as opener of the New York Film Festival. Prime marketing challenges in putting the picture over with a wider public include the three-hour running time, fragmented structure and emotional distance stemming from Altman’s characteristic skepticism about the human animal.
Crisscrossing 22 significant characters through an impressively constructed web of interconnected plots and subplots, this is a bemused contemplation of the unaccountable way people behave when fate deals them unexpected hands, embracing everything from slapstick comedy to devastating tragedy.
Few films have tried to detail so much, to chart so many trajectories, to drop so many little truths while not insisting upon some grandiose overall statement. While the filmmaking mastery is evident in every area, the two things that are finally most impressive are the way Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt have expanded the stories, and the offhandedness of it all. Most films have trouble enough telling one story, but Altman makes juggling a trunk load of them seem easy.
Set mostly in the Pacific Northwest and populated by working-class characters , Carver’s stories deal with convulsions in commonplace lives, how people react to the sudden intrusion of setbacks, infidelity, violence and death. By shuffling the deck of stories, Altman importantly has magnified the elements of chance, randomness and luck as determinants in the cosmic scheme of things. Net effect is that of eavesdropping upon very carefully selected slices of life.
Shifting the action effectively to the blandly anonymous outlying areas of Los Angeles, Altman raises the curtain with Medfly spray being rained down on the city’s inhabitants, a metaphor some will read more into than others will. With economical simplicity, he brings on his enormous troupe of players.
They include married couple Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell, whose young son is hit by a car driven by waitress Lily Tomlin, a trailer park denizen whose marriage to chauffeur Tom Waits has hit choppy water.
Attending to the injured boy is doctor Matthew Modine, who still wonders if artist wife Julianne Moore had an affair a few years back. They meet married couple Anne Archer, who works as a clown at children’s parties, and Fred Ward at a concert and invite them to dinner, but first Ward is due to take a fishing trip with buddies Buck Henry and Huey Lewis, during which they make the shocking discovery of a dead woman’s body in a river.
Performing at the concert is classical cellist Lori Singer, a loner whose mother Annie Ross sings jazz and ballads at a local club. Among the hangout’s habitues are pool serviceman Chris Penn and wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, who indelibly gives phone sex from home while feeding her kids, and their friends Robert Downey Jr., a special-effects makeup artist, and Lili Taylor, who make the most of a housesitting opportunity.
Medfly chopper pilot Peter Gallagher has split from wife Frances McDormand, who in turn has been having an affair with L.A. cop Tim Robbins, whose wife Madeleine Stowe models for Moore. Conclusion loosely ties the disparate characters together by way of a unifying event, although it doesn’t unite them physically in one place a la “Nashville.”
Altman has used Carver’s stories as a vehicle for presenting a vast panorama of life problems that are humorous, grim and absurd in equal measure. Viewer interest in the goings-on is generated not by artificial melodrama or hyped-up filmmaking technique, but by the recognition factor of the human foibles on display.
As the grand ringmaster, it’s here that Altman passes the baton to his actors , whose behavioral insights are critical to the film’s success.
MacDowell excels as a mother agonizing over the prolonged hospitalization of her injured son; with his fascistic glare and manipulativeness, Robbins crystallizes why a lot of people don’t like L.A. cops; Penn subtly registers a limited man going over the edge, and Moore is arresting as the spunky artist (she also stars in what will no doubt be the most discussed scene, in which she casually performs naked from the waist down).
Also noteworthy are Archer, as a woman outraged by her husband’s casual response to finding a corpse; Jack Lemmon, who has a showpiece monologue in which he reveals a dark secret to long-estranged son Davison, and McDormand and Gallagher, the former showing no quarter as a spiteful estranged wife, the latter taking gleeful vengeance on her furniture with a chainsaw.
But there are ways in which the film comes up short. Some uncomfortable traces of condescension toward the characters creep in, and the film may not be as funny as it sometimes strives to be.
Altman and lenser Walt Lloyd keep the camera alertly moving but simple, often starting with establishing shots, then closing in on the actors. Editor Geraldine Peroni has done a stupendous job juggling the story lines, never losing sight of one for too long, and expertly judging when to resume another. Mark Isham’s effective score is abetted by a torrent of source music, notably Ross’ throaty jazz vocals and Singer’s cello playing.